Isla Holbox – lots of Swedes and a little bit of rain

Generally, people are a little strange, we’ve come to realise that on our travels. Not in a racist or derogatory way, just an observation. We think this of them, and they more than likely think the same of us.

Last year we spent Christmas on a lovely island called Koh Lanta in Thailand. For some reason, half the population of Sweden also spend their Christmases there. Head 10 miles in any direction and there’s not a Swede in sight. Why and when they decided to pick this spot who knows, but they also decided on Isla Holbox as well. This place is crawling with delightfully agreeable Swedish folk. Nowhere else in Latin America, just here.  A tiny, mostly unvisited island just three and a half hours from the tourist mecca Cancun. As I was saying, not a complaint, just a strange cultural observation.

Isla Holbox
Isla Holbox

Holbox (pronounced hol-bosh) is famous for the whale sharks who herd off the shores here. Not whilst we are here though, May through September is best. We are here to continue our wind down to the end of our travels. We are staying in an incredible castle-cum-beach-bum-hostel called Tribu. Probably the most popular spot for backpackers on the island which means great facilities but also inevitably means there are also few weirdos hanging around. A French chap decided to pee in the middle of one of the shared rooms one night, blaming it on the tequila, without raising an eyebrow!

Hostel Tribu - Isla Holbox
Hostel Tribu - Isla Holbox

We arrived via a short boat ride to discover the unpaved roads flooded due to a recent storm so catch a golf-cart taxi to the hostel. Unfortunately, the rain soon started again, and continued on and off for almost three days. No beach time then. During the dry spells we investigated the town, it’s the usual weather-beaten shack type affair. So simple, yet so much nicer than the concrete, ad-infested metropolis that awaits us in just a few days. Yep, in just seven days we would be back in London, so to pass the time we got busy planning our return. We both worked on our CV’s and online profiles and took care of our finances.

Isla Holbox - flooded streets
Isla Holbox - flooded streets

The last day we got lucky and the sun decided to make an appearance. We are not usually beach bums, ones to spend every day on the beach. But we did that day. It’s the Caribbean and we’ve heard that the snow is hitting the UK. We are going to make to most of it.

Isla Holbox - beach
Isla Holbox - beach

That night Leah and I were also celebrating our three year anniversary.  So we dug deep into our much depleted wallets and decided on a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine.

So, Holbox. We will be back. And there better be sun and whale sharks or there will be trouble.

 

 

 

 

Tulum – slowdown

With just over two weeks left on the coast of Mexico there is not much left on our itinerary.

With just over two weeks left on the coast of Mexico there is not much left on our itinerary.  Depressing as it may seem, there is lots for us to do before we get back home. Job and flat hunting has begun and we are slowly working out the logistics of building our lives again in London. We are both sad that it’s all coming to an end but at the same time we are both ready to go home and are excited about all the new things ahead of us.

Tulum
Tulum

We checked into a great little hostel in Tulum town called Mama’s Home. Most short vacationers prefer to stay on the beach, about 5km out of town, but we were keen to keep the budget down and also needed to ensure we were near internet and phones in case of any news on job prospects. The hostel itself is nothing out of the ordinary, with clean, white rooms and a nice communal area but the breakfasts are probably the best we’ve had on our whole trip – day one: French toast with chocolate and banana; day two: spinach omelette with potato and papaya; day three: pancakes with maple syrup and watermelon. Yum.

We are firmly in tourist land; every building on the main strip is either a restaurant or a shop selling souvenirs. Everywhere you look there are sombreros, wrestling masks and leather handbags, each shop a replica of the one next to it. However, only a short taxi or bike ride away, and you come to one of the nicest beaches we’ve seen. White powder sand, crystal waters and lots of relaxed beach bars. It’s a fun place to unwind, which is exactly what we were here to do.

Tulum - sand is too white, sun is too strong and the water is a weird blue color
Tulum - sand is too white, sun is too strong and the water is a weird blue color

Our stay was also planned to coincide with the visit of some friends we first met over a year ago in Vietnam.  We met Jill and Paul whilst visiting Saigon and had stayed in touch since. They were staying in a fantastic eco-type lodge on the beach and we spent a great couple of evenings with them and their travel buddies drinking rum and enjoying some delicious dinners. Hopefully we’ll get the chance to meet up with them again when we’re back in London.

Quiet night over a bottle of Flora de Cana
Quiet night over a bottle of Flor de Cana

We enjoyed four incredibly lazy days. Beach, internet, restaurants, films, bed, repeat.  We had originally planned to stay for five days but decided to leave a day early and head over to Isla Mujeres to meet up with the Stefs. After two months, on and off, of travelling with them, this was to be our final farewell before we headed home. I think we were all a little sad to say goodbye but I’m sure they will just about manage without us for the rest of their travels. We’re both a bit jealous they are heading to Nepal.

Palenque – better than Tikal?

The site is much smaller than Tikal, but mainly because they have only uncovered around 5%, with the rest remaining below ground.

And so from Flores it was on towards Mexico, the final country on our trip and our last overland border crossing. And what a border crossing it was! After being picked up by a minivan at 5am, we finally set off around 6am after much stopping and starting and waiting, I’m not sure what for. After an incredibly bumpy journey along some of the worst roads in Central America, the like of which we’ve not experienced since Bolivia, we arrived at the Guatemalan exit post out in the middle of nowhere. Here we got our stamps for the small price of 40 pesos, not an entirely legitimate fee but not a lot you can do about it. One couple tried refusing but simply got told that if they didn’t pay they wouldn’t get a stamp so after they’d eventually coughed up (come on guys it’s only £2) we were on our way again. A few miles down the road and we were all hauled off the bus and onto a boat to ride down the river and into Mexico.

Boat across the border

After half an hour on sewage infested waters we were out the other side onto dry land once again for our Mexican entry stamps. Then it was a short ride in a taxi to the bus stop before we piled into another minibus for the last leg of our journey to Palenque. Nearly nine hours after setting off we finally arrived at our destination. Phew.

Palenque

We were only staying in Palenque for a couple of days. There’s not a lot to see or do here except the ruins but we’d heard they were as good as Tikal or Copan and better than Chichen Itza. The town itself is pretty non-descript. Lots of shoe shops. Not much else of note. Still, our room was cheap and there was a Burger King in town so we had nothing to complain about. After dinner it was an early night, the journey from Flores had taken it out of us.

Skull carving at Palenque

The next day and we were off to the ruins. After our disappointing tour of Tikal, we decided to go it alone again this time and off we went, armed with our Lonely Planet for information. Collectivos head out to the ruins every 15 minutes or so and it takes about 20 minutes to get there. You have to pay an entrance fee when you reach the National Park and then get another entrance ticket to the ruins itself, all in about 100 pesos in total (£5).

More Palenque
...and more...

The site is much smaller than Tikal, but mainly because they have only uncovered around 5%, with the rest remaining below ground. When you consider what the whole place would have been like at the time it’s pretty impressive. The structures are also more complete than Tikal. Ok, they’ve done some restoration in places and you can see where, but it really helps give you a sense of how it would have looked. The setting, deep in the jungle, is beautiful too, although the dozens of hawkers selling tourist tat do somewhat detract from the serenity of it all.

...and more...
...and more...

The other great thing about Palenque is that you can still climb up most of the structures. I’ve heard that Chichen Itza is all roped off these days so you can’t really explore properly ( someone died ). The stairs are steep though so wear proper shoes and comfortable clothing, the Eastern European girl in a dress struggled a bit and we got a great view of her knickers a few times. It’s definitely worth the climb though as you get some awesome views over the whole site from the buildings that sit up on the hill. Since the ruins are in the jungle there are also a couple of waterfalls on the walk back to civilisation. Not quite the spectacle of Iguazu but pretty nonetheless.

The waterfall

After a few hours at the ruins it was back to town for something to eat before heading to the bus station for a overnight journey to Merida. Then a few days there to celebrate Rich’s birthday before a final few weeks on the coast.

Tikal – complete washout

Fun Tikal fact – George Lucas came here in 1979 to shoot a scene for one of his Star Wars films.

Not every day on a 14 month holiday is going to go exactly to plan. When we first packed up and left the UK we took with us a very British attitude that a holiday abroad must include sunshine and warm weather. On our way we’ve been through it all, unbearable heat, snow storms, tropical gales and everything in between. We accepted long ago that not every day will be dry and prepare for wet days with a smile. Since we have only a few weeks before returning to the UK perhaps it was fitting then that we were treated to a total downpour, preparing us for London in February.

Tikal is one of the largest Mayan ruins in Central America, it’s the poster child for the Mayan prophecy that the world will end on Dec 21st 2012 and so has become a big hit with the tourists. Mentalists will flock here at the end of the year, as the world ends, and dance and stuff in the hope they will be granted pass to the next world or a trip on an alien spaceship or something. Hotels are booked up, prices are rocketing. I want to be there on Dec 20th, buying up all their valuables at discount.

Tikal temples
Tikal temples

These Mayan ruins have always been on our list as a must do whilst in Guatemala along with Palenque in Mexico. We have crossed off Chichen Itza after hearing underwhelming reports and also we want to spread our time between beaches, towns and ruins. Tikal is famous not just for its impressive temples but also the setting; the site sits deep in the jungle, populated by howler and spider monkeys.

Tikal
Tikal

We are staying in Flores, a cute island about an hour away. The town is joined to the mainland by a small road with most hotels overlooking the crystal clear lake. It’s not so touristy, and although there are souvenir tat shops everywhere it still maintains its charm. And it’s cheap. Our hotel room was £11 a night including private bathroom, air-con and cable TV. We set our alarms for 4:00am with a bus to Tikal at 5am. Everybody tells us we must aim to get to Tikal by 7am as there is less chance of rain.

Wrong.

Tikal - damp
Tikal - damp

It rained. Not your usual heavy rain, but soaked to the socks in a second rain. Many in our group (we opted for a guided tour, he was a bit crap but you need someone as you can easily get lost at the site) fled back to the café drenched and cold. We had our raincoats but after a few minutes they afforded no protection. After about an hour and a half the rain stopped and even a bit of blue sky sneaked out. We spent about three hours in total around the site, it’s certainly impressive, the steamy jungle adds to the whole experience but in all honesty we didn’t actually like it as much as previous Mayan encounters. Copan Ruins was beautiful, and as our guide told us, was where the artists lived so had many more decorative buildings and carvings. We don’t think our disappointment was too much down to the rain. Maybe after Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu we take some pleasing.

Tikal temples
Tikal temples

Fun Tikal fact – George Lucas came here in 1979 to shoot a scene for one of his Star Wars films. That made my day. I sat on top of a temple looking out at an immediately recognisable scene and made a few Yoda impersonations.

Tika or Yavin 4 depending on how much of geek you are
Tikal or Yavin 4 depending on how much of geek you are

We had both developed trench foot so headed home and had a quiet day. As per usual in Latin American towns, there was a street festival that night, locals lugged around town some religious gold, that could better be used melted down and donated to the local hospital. The streets were filled, a local band with trumpet fired up and fireworks finished the night. Awesome.

 

Generic Latin American street festival fun
Generic Latin American street festival fun

 

Caye Caulker – lobster central

Within 60 seconds of being underwater we were surrounded by sharks, rays, moray eels and hundreds of fish.

We’ve been looking forward to Caye Caulker since before we left England.  Our original plans were to start backpacking in Mexico, spend Christmas in Caye Caulker (we even had an apartment booked) and then fly out of Panama down to Brazil for the Carnival, working our way back up to Colombia in South America.  The big change was simply down to cost; flights from Panama down to Rio are very expensive. It worked out cheaper to spend our first three months in Asia and then use air miles to get to Brazil.

Our view from the cabin
Our view from the cabin

In the last few weeks before leaving the UK I would browse pictures of this tiny Belizean island for hours. Arriving up the coast from Placencia we caught the San Pedro water taxi for an hour through turquoise water and across shallow reef. Arriving at Cake Caulker we realised just how tiny this island is. Comparable to Little Corn Island in size but more developed. There are no cars on the island; they have adopted golf carts as their first choice of transport. Taxis, delivery vans and even police vehicles are golf carts. Even though it only takes 10 minutes to walk from one end of the island to the other, many American tourists seem to prefer spending $50 a day on a cart – lazy buggers.

You can outrun the local police
You can outrun the local police

We are spending a week here, the first  three days in a sea battered wooden house on the beach (Lena’s place)and the rest in a hostel in the centre of town (but still on the beach) called Yuma’s.  Lena’s was a great place run by an old local couple, rooms were simple with a fan and bathroom that even had hot water. Uma’s had a reputation for bedbugs but we heard it had been taken over by a German lady so we assumed it had got its act sorted out. We were correct; the place was run with ruthless efficiency, perhaps a little too ruthless, there were signs posted on every wall with various warnings and instructions on what to, and what not to do. One of the fun parts of backpacking and spending time with other cultures is how often country stereotypes are reconfirmed.

We spent our first few days exploring the island; at first glance food seemed to be expensive. But with a little hunting we found a couple of places where a breakfast would cost only £3 for both of us, and a whole lobster, rice and beans with drink and dessert would cost only £8. Opt for the American sports bar and the same would cost you three times that.  We recommend Marin’s for breakfast, Fran’s or the Enjoy bar for dinner. If you come here, and you should, hunt down the pizza shack run by the local policeman after hours, the pizza is first rate and his Cuba Libres are deadly.

Fran's Grill - some pretty good lobster
Fran's Grill - some pretty good lobster

Sometimes we get advice from other travellers and it gets forgotten quickly but when an Australian couple who have dived the Great Barrier Reef tell us we can’t leave without snorkelling here with a local guide, you start to think it’s going to be special. Later the same day, an American couple give us the same name and tell us his snorkel trips area the reason they came back to Cake Caulker. So we book a whole day on the reef with Juni, a 73 year old sea dog with a small sailboat and very curious manner. When asked what the day would involve he just replied  “not going to tell ya, wait and see” I suspect this act was a little bit of  pantomime for the tourists, but he’s known by everybody on the here, he was born and raised on the Island so I’ll go along with the fun. He’s the boss.

Juni - he talks to the fish
Juni - he talks to the fish

This time of year the warm wind blows hard onto Caye Caulker, at night it howled through our cabin. We wake up to our day at sea and there is not the slightest breeze so Juni has to fire up his motor, which sounds like it’s packing about 2 bhp. The sea was like a lake, not the slightest of waves. It took us about an hour to get to our first snorkel spot, the motor sounding like an electric toothbrush.

A quiet day at sea
A quiet day at sea

Within 60 seconds of being underwater we were surrounded by sharks, rays, moray eels and hundreds of fish. Incredible. The waters were teeming with life and Juni seemed to summon fish up to him with a few clicks of his fingers and fed moray eels right in front of us.  He liked to tell us he’d known some of the fish personally for years. We spent a few hours snorkelling the second biggest reef in the world; as good as any I’d seen before in Asia. On our way back a small pod of three dolphins swam around our boat for a few minutes checking us out.

The lesser spotted sea bat
The lesser spotted sea bat

Whilst walking through town one day our friends the Stefs from Switzerland ride past on the back of taxi-cart. They hadn’t originally planned on coming here but had heard great things. This of course meant some more big nights out. The disgusting local rum, One Barrel, was consumed late into the night and we were the first on the dance floor at the local club, OceanSide.  No shame.

flesh-fest down at the split
flesh-fest down at the split

We loved Caye Caulker. It may not have the perfect beaches like some other islands near here but the Caribbean atmosphere is incredible. We spent many days just sitting reading down at the split (the end of the island), local music blaring from speakers, surrounded by half the island’s tourists doing the same, occasionally jumping off the sea wall into warm crystal clear water to cool off.